I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behavior. I’m a longtime fan, especially because I enjoy the way she writes about the natural world and the complex relationships between people and place. I don’t make much time to read fiction these days- too busy trying to keep up with the news and the constantly expanding universe of great science writing, so when I finally found time to dive into this novel, I devoured it. To my surprise, it’s a story about climate change. Not just climate change, but how we as different communities of people are dealing with climate, including a scathing critique of how journalists have handled the issue.
So, spoiler alerts ahead. I’ve never reviewed a novel on this blog before, so I’m new at this and I’ll try my best not to ruin the story for you- because I strongly recommend it. But I want to talk about how Kingsolver digs into the climate debate, and I can’t do that without laying out some of the plot. If you want to- go read the book now, and come back to this post when you are done and leave me a comment with your thoughts on the topic of climate and cultures and what’s wrong with how we have the conversations about it.
Kingsolver sets this novel in rural Tennessee, her heroine, Dellarobia, is a young mom yearning for a bigger, broader world. Instead, the world and it’s biggest, broadest problems come to her. She discovers the forest above her husband’s family farm is covered with butterflies- so many monarchs that she initially thinks the forest is on fire because of the expanse of flickering orange. The sea of butterflies seems like a miracle to many in town, but a scientist soon shows up to study the butterflies and explains that the miracle may actually be a tragedy- climate changes shifting the butterflies off their established seasonal migrations. The confused insects were stuck spending a winter in Tennessee where a sudden cold snap could wipe out the entire population.
The conversations that unfold between Dellarobia and the scientist, Ovid, as he answers her questions about the connections between climate and ecology are revealing. She’s a smart woman, quickly grasping the importance of the issues at stake, not just for the fragile butterflies, but for the entirety of the planet’s fragile ecosystems that they represent. She starts reaching for solutions, like transporting butterflies to a warmer climate for safety, but Ovid rejects it out-of-hand.
He explains that just saving some butterflies doesn’t really solve the problem- pull them away from their ecosystem, their evolutionary history, and the prospects are not sunny.
Like many scientists, he passionate about his work but trying to remain also detached from his data, uncomfortable with taking an activist role. He doesn’t have the solutions Dellarobia wants him too, but he continues on, collecting data on potentially doomed butterflies anyway. Collecting the data is all he knows how to do, and so he does it, despite the depressing circumstances. This reminds me of a conversation I had at AAAS with a frog biologist, who told me that from her perspective, things look pretty bleak for her frogs, but she feels compelled to continue studying them anyway. In environmental journalism- we always try to find a positive angle, a hopefully opportunity, the possibility of change, because, we’re told, people don’t want to read news that’s all bad. But sometimes, the news is all bad- for endangered frogs or alpine ecosystems or fictionalized lost butterflies.
Do we still have a responsibility to study it or write about it? For Kingsolver, Ovid’s answer is yes, to do the only thing he knows and carry on with his work. But Dellarobia can’t just accept that bad news without looking for hope, looking for solutions.
Early on, a TV journalist comes to interview Dellarobia about the miracle of the butterflies and ends up misrepresenting her. After learning from Ovid the real threats to monarchs and the planet, Dellarobia asks him why he isn’t on TV, isn’t telling people about the problems. He’s resigned to being misunderstood. When the journalist comes back for a follow-up, Dellarobia takes her to Ovid and the exchange that follows is a serious critique on how “balanced” journalism has mishandled climate change. You just have to read it- the scientists take a skeptical view of the value of even trying, again, to explain things to a reporter with a preconceived story to tell, and the reporter doesn’t want to listen to their answers, arguing about the remaining “debate” over whether global warming is real instead of digging in to the real story about the disoriented butterflies.
One of the most stereotype busting scenes, an environmental activist starts hanging around the butterfly forest, handing out pamphlets about what people can do to reduce their carbon footprint and do their part to fight climate change. When he reads Dellarobia the list, she realizes that just by virtue of being poor, her carbon footprint in tiny- she buys used and they don’t travel. She wasn’t motivated by concerns over climate change- but the activist becomes sheepish realizing, mid lecture, that he’s the one with the larger greenhouse gas impact.
Through the book, you follow Dellarobia on her journey to understand climate change and the host of challenges it create, and she talks her way through these new ideas in a really relatable way- with analogies that reflect her life. You learn with her, and feel the weight of this new perspective as she does. Learning with her might be a really powerful for readers to understand and appreciate the weight of the issues. The power of narrative and a character you connect with gives climate change power that is hard to find in traditional science reporting. In nonfiction science writing, we talk about the power of narrative to capture the attention of the readers and the challenges of constructing a compelling story that is also true. Kingsolver opts out of the second part- creating a fictional world and a fictional threat to a charismatic species to tell a true story about the risks of climate change. It reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant book- The Things They Carried– which considers the possibility that stories that never really happened might be the most true. It’s not a strategy that works for those of us in journalism, obviously, but I’m impressed with the compelling scientific truth in Kingsolver’s fiction. It makes me want to read more science inclined fiction. I’ll do that, while you go read Flight Behavior if you haven’t already. If you have, I’d love to hear what you thought about the way the book covers climate change and communication.